Madagascar polls to test democracy

Under the eyes of the world this time, Madagascar goes to the polls on Sunday in presidential elections that will test its democratic credibility.

The last presidential contest, in 2001, from which then-president Didier Ratsiraka banned observers, split the country for six months and drove it to the point of civil war. Ratsiraka refused to acknowledge the victory of Marc Ravalomanana and attempted to run an alternative government until he fled into exile in France.

Ratsiraka is not contesting this poll, although his nephew Roland, the mayor of Toamasina, is running under the banner of another party.
Two weeks ago, Ratsiraka’s former deputy prime minister, Pierrot Rajaonarivelo—sought on corruption charges—tried to return from exile in France. However, he was barred from landing in his stronghold, Toamasina. Rajaona­rivelo’s candidacy was ruled out by the supreme court because he botched the registration.

The people of Madagascar are irked by the negative publicity generated by the Rajaonarivelo incident, along with the pantomime coup d’état by former Ravalomanana insider General Randrianafidisoa, widely known as General Fidy.

Still on the run, Fidy claims he was legitimately calling for Ravalomanana’s political defeat and had no intention of mounting a putsch. Newspapers and television stations that reported the coup as a fait accompli have since been threatened with closure, and journalists have told Communications Minister Bruno Andiantavison that they are afraid of being intimidated.

The Malagasy people know they must get this election right in order to maintain the country’s credibility. Ravalomanana claims credit for cleaning up Antananarivo—the once splendid capital—boosting infrastructural development, reigniting tourism and putting the country back on the regional and continental map.

There is a strong undercurrent of ethnicity in Madagascan politics; the country is split between the Merina—descendants of the Indonesians who came here 2 000 years ago and occupied the highlands—and the relatively more recent arrivals, known as the Cotiers, who occupy the coastal region.

Candidates have avoided playing this dangerous card, but observers fear it could easily surface if the outcome is again disputed.

Ravalomanana, who criss-crossed the country in a helicopter addressing more than 100 meetings in the first fortnight of campaigning, is confident he will win the contest in the first round. Even in Toamasina, a former Ratsiraka stronghold, Ravalomanana’s people are saying he will win 60% of the votes.

“Toamasina used to be the Beirut of Madagascar. It was where Ratsiraka made his last stand and his party, Arema, has a strong following here,” said Ravalomanana’s local campaign director Mahifalahy Rasamimaka.“But [Ravalomanana] has brought peace to Toamasina, as he has to the rest of the country, and he will be rewarded for this.”

Of Ravalomanana’s 13 opponents, 11 have supported Fidy’s call for his defeat. However, only one of them, former deputy prime minister Herzio Razafimaleo, shows the kind of organisation capable of shaking the incumbent. Razafimaleo has also used a chopper to get around the island and has drawn crowds as large as Ravalomanana’s in the capital. Razafimaleo garnered 15% of the vote in the 1996 election, but this slipped to 4% in 2001.

Madagascar has an incredibly arcane voting system in which candidates are required to print their own ballot papers. This allows wealthier candidates to splash out on colourful, eye-catching typographical works, while poorer contenders have to be satisfied with a single colour on cheaper paper.

If the ballots are delivered to the ministry of the interior on time, they are distributed to the polling stations. Candidates who miss this deadline have to ensure and pay for the distribution themselves.

The international community is supporting this election to the tune of about $8million. United Nations coordinator for the elections, Jean-Victor Bouri Sanhouidi, says creating a digital voters’ roll was one of the most important advancements on past elections.

“Madagascar has come a long way since the split of 2001/02. We have learned not to take anything for granted. We cannot minimise the damage the split did to the country on a human and financial level. We cannot let it happen again.”

Governments, regional groups and NGOs have sent observer delegations from Africa, Europe and Asia who will work with 14 000 local observers covering 17 600 polling stations.

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